Nonprofit immerses young people in civic affairs

Posted at 7:00 AM, Jan 31, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-31 07:00:52-05

OXFORD, Ohio -- At 19, Hamilton native and Miami University student Bekah Bolser has more achievements listed on her résumé than many people twice her age.

Bekah Bolser

She’s been the U.S. chairwoman of the International Youth Council, which has more than 30,000 members worldwide and is part of the Youth Assembly at the United Nations. She founded and helps coordinate a scholarship fund and mentorship network for women from low-income backgrounds. She is the spokeswoman for Generation Progress, the youth arm of the Center for American Progress. She has served as a digital consultant for UNICEF and is a contributor to The Huffington Post.

And she’s celebrating the one-year anniversary of Seat at the Table, a nonprofit organization she co-founded to engage Ohio’s young people in the political process through hands-on civic education.

“Prior to founding Seat at the Table, a lot of the work I was doing was at the international level,” Bolser said. “But I wanted to come back and help young people make an impact at the local level.”

Bolser, along with Michael Flores – a 2015 Miami graduate who lives in Cleveland – came up with the idea for Seat at the Table when they were working on the 2014 midterm elections in Butler County.

“It was election night, and we realized we were surrounded by people older than us,” Bolser said. “We were the only two young people there. We learned there had been a disappointing turnout among our generation at the polls that year, as well. We knew we had to do something to get our generation engaged.”

Bolser and Flores organized a one-day summit in June for young people in Butler County. Fifty high school students, Hamilton’s mayor and two state representatives attended. So did Sarah Woiteshek Pietzuch, the executive director of the Center for Civic Engagement at Miami’s Hamilton campus. Woiteshek Pietzuch hosted a workshop as part of the summit and pledged to support Bolser and Flores in whatever they’d need to make Seat at the Table’s mission a reality.

“Bekah’s ability to network locally has been wonderful,” Woiteshek Pietzuch said. “She’s really connected with city council members, and it’s great because this work is needed in Butler County.”

Bolser and Flores decided to expand the organization’s programs to include a nine-week curriculum they and other Seat at the Table leaders would oversee in area high schools. It will focus on building a project students care about that would help solve a problem in the community. The group is working with Ross, Badin and Hamilton high schools, along with Talawanda High School in Oxford.

“In a year, I’d like to see Seat at the Table in most of the major areas of Ohio,” Flores said. “In five years, I hope to see us spread to other major cities in other states, so that when people hear ‘Seat at the Table’ they know what it is – a huge community of young people who are trying to solve issues in their area.”

There are already around 200 high school students involved with Seat at the Table, Bolser said.

After students develop a project, Seat at the Table leaders help them establish a platform and implement it. Bolser said Hamilton High School – her alma mater – is focusing on heroin and drug use. Other schools are still in the brainstorming stage but are considering bullying, hometown pride, school testing and educational standards, and school punishment and juvenile crime as topics of interest.

By working with local government administrators, students have the opportunity to make a difference and see what civic engagement looks like beyond just voting, Bolser said.

“We learned that young people felt like voting wouldn’t do anything,” Flores said. “So, we wanted to show people at a young age the impact they could have on their community. Ideally, if we do our job really well, the voting piece will be the least important part because young people will have already made the impact they want to see.”

In April, Seat at the Table is convening a one-day “hackathon,” which will be open to all area college students. The students will spend 24 hours writing code and using technology to tackle issues faced by local governments.

“It’s to explore the intersection of technology and civic engagement,” Bolser said.

And, she said, another high school student-focused summit will be held in September.